Port Douglas the perfect place for a snorkelfest
TRADITIONALLY for me the holiday of choice has involved long-haul flights, exotic countries and stamped passports.
In the last few years however, I have had a couple of revelations: paradise is within our own borders and my all-time favourite thing to do is to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.
A like-minded friend and I head off early one morning for a four-day holiday.
A couple of hours later we're at Cairns Airport, "the gateway to the reef". We're booked into Thala Beach Lodge, a five-star, eco-friendly resort, located 10 minutes south of Port Douglas.
On arrival, to say we were impressed is an understatement.
The property is made up of individual, private bungalows set in lush rainforest on a secluded headland.
We were warmly welcomed and our bags taken to our bungalow.
It turns out our timing is perfect, we're just in time for lunch and the first of many stunning meals at Thala's restaurant, Osprey's.
The remainder of our first day was taken up with getting down to the serious business of relaxing.
A stroll around the beautiful property and its white, sandy private beaches was followed by a wonderful massage at Thala's in-house spa.
Feeling remarkably less tense, I followed up my massage with some expert flopping around the pool.
This is not just any old pool either; this particular pool is set on the crest of the headland and features waterfalls, spas and grottos.
The second day was our big reef day. Booked with a recommended boat, Wavelength, we were picked up from Thala early in the morning to arrive at the wharf in Port Douglas.
Our crew, including a marine biologist, put the 20 or so of us at ease with their good humour, coffee and obvious expertise.
Our particular reef tour involved snorkelling in three different locations on the reef.
The staff used the travel time to get us up to speed on safety, how to use the snorkel equipment and a rundown of the locations we would be snorkelling and what marine life we could expect to see.
We dropped anchor at the first location, Opal Reef about 90 minutes from Port Douglas.
Everyone is keen to get into the water and when we do, the temperature is perfect.
Once I got my snorkel comfortable and not leaking (pesky long hair), I gently swam getting the slow "snorkel breath" in rhythm as I started to take in the awesome reef.
I find one of the best things about snorkelling is my controlled breathing puts me in the most amazing, almost meditative state of relaxation.
Marry that feeling with the underwater technicolour life that you are witnessing centimetres from your face, and it doesn't get much better.
The Opal Reef location has shallow coral gardens speckled with giant clams and the small, brightly coloured coral-dwelling fish, like little Nemos everywhere!
An hour at this site and my main concern is to stop grinning so much, as this makes my snorkel leak.
At the second site, St Crispins Reef, the staff gives us the option to take a guided snorkel tour with them.
Most of us oblige and are happy to have the various marine life pointed out to us by experts.
This site has extraordinary coral "architecture" and is mind-blowingly beautiful.
It's hard to take in the hundreds of types of coral, fish and the colours without being overwhelmed by the beauty.
The third and final spot we visit is the famous Tongue Reef. At this site, I was lucky enough to see small and graceful (not remotely scary) reef sharks, lagoon rays and schools of parrotfish and sweetlips. It was a stunning finale to our day on the reef.
Back at our luxurious bungalow at Thala, we're glad we took the option to have the seafood picnic basket delivered to our room. It's the perfect end to a perfect day.
The last full day of our holiday, we take in Port Douglas Markets and the vibrant town in the morning, while the afternoon was spent on Thala's private beach with a magazine. Our last dinner of seafood chowder at Thala's Osprey's has been imprinted on my brain as memorably beautiful, the flavours of the sea creatively fused in one dish.
Like all wonderful holidays, this one finished all too soon.
The only way I can console myself is to vow that I'm returning next year. Back to Thala and back to the reef.